Distinguished Fellow Maureen Robinson from Stellenbosch University in South Africa shares insights from school principals and deputy principals about how to build a school environment that supports student learning. Paula
In May 2018 I invited six school principals and deputy principals from local primary and high schools to address two classes of final year Education students at Stellenbosch University on the topic Classroom communication: insights from the profession. The aim of the session was to share with student teachers real stories of how the speakers facilitate processes of communication at their schools – aimed at building a healthy environment that supports learning.
As I put it to the students: “We want you to hear the voices from the profession so that you can understand the challenges, structures and processes with regards to facilitating communication at all levels at school. We are looking for stories of challenges as well as possibilities; what teachers do to establish positive communication between learners, professional communication between teachers, and productive communication with the broader environment.”
The speakers were asked to address the following guiding questions:
- How important is teacher-teacher and learner-teacher communication in building a healthy environment for learning at the school?
- How does your school encourage professional communication between teachers?
- How does your school encourage positive communication with learners?
- What are some of the challenges you face in building trust and communication at your school? How do you deal with these?
- Have you drawn on any professional development or academic programmes to shape your understanding of these issues? If so, which, and how have they shaped your understanding?
South Africa is one of the most inequitable societies in the world, and this plays itself out in the combination of wealth and poverty within a small radius around the university. The invited speakers represented a range of socioeconomic conditions surrounding the town of Stellenbosch – including well-resourced schools serving an affluent community, poorly-resourced schools serving a poverty-stricken community, and those serving a more mixed population.
Students hung on every word, as the speakers spoke with passion, and showed evidence of their commitment and dedication to their learners, often in difficult circumstances.
Here is some of the advice these principals and deputy principals shared with the prospective teachers:
Trust people. Connect to children, but there must also be boundaries. Know and use the structures of the school. Use a buddy system where older children help the younger ones. This teaches them responsibility and leadership. Remember that you cannot grow a plant by dipping it into the dirt once a year, it takes an ongoing connection to build root system. You have the power to build a positive environment. Don’t display negative thinking and negative outlooks, or you will sound like a victim of someone else’s actions.
One of the things that I’ve picked up in schools is that instead of working in collaboration, we work in isolation. We say “Oh, we’ve got the best practices in our school” but we never look beyond our institution. One of the good things is to communicate with fellow colleagues: “How do you do this, how do you approach this?” This is not necessarily related to your subject. I might ask a colleague of mine, “How do you deal with these huge classes?” “How do you deal with that difficult child?” Beyond that, “How do you deal with that difficult child who has a difficult parent?” When you open that communication you find that you are not in isolation.
Just the way a teacher carries him or herself when coming into the class communicates to the learners in the class. Yesterday I realised again that those learners are psychologists. They analyse you. They look at you, the amount of enthusiasm you portray. They look at you and based on that they respond to the type of learning that is happening in class.
One of the challenges that has an impact on communication is the amount of stress that we are subjected to. I’ve had teachers start the day and greet me, and the next morning, the teacher is absent – they’re not coming back. This shows us the kind of challenges we face.
As a principal, I try and be as transparent as possible so that teachers know exactly where they stand with me, and I show them where I stand with them. An important aspect that I encourage at my school is that we must agree to disagree, and we must embrace each other’s’ differences, and in that way we can move forward.
When a girl is young she may dream of her future husband, she has ideas about what she wants the husband to be like, he must be like this or like that. But then, she gets married and she gets the actual husband, not the one she has been dreaming of. It is the same with schools. When you are in university, you are told that this is what is happening in schools, and you expect certain things, but then experience the reality in schools. It can sometimes derail you.
It is very important to go into class prepared, because as soon as you open your mouth to start teaching, those learners will know if you are unprepared. But when you go to class prepared, those learners copy from you and come to class prepared. If they come to class prepared, it encourages you to prepare more to face the questions that you learn to expect.
The first thing that we need to inculcate to parents is that they need to own the school because if they don’t own the school, they will not look after the school. That comes from the fact that people come to my school from different areas, and don’t feel a committed sense of belonging.
You’re going in to teaching to make a difference, and in making that difference you will have to communicate. There is the verbal communication – what you say – but also the non-verbal communication – how you say it. If you’re sitting in a desk lying back in your chair, what does that say to the learners who already don’t want to be there? Do you eat your lunch while you are teaching? You can’t expect your children to read if you are sitting watching TV. If you want your kids to work hard, you have to work hard. All these things are communication, and they say a lot about who you are and what type of behaviour you expect back.
I love social media and technology. Nuclear reactions can do two things: they can cure cancer, or make an atom bomb. It’s not the science or technology that is bad, it is how we use it. WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, e-mail, Google Classroom: you must use all of those. Google Classroom is the best thing, if you don’t know how to use it, learn how.
You are all here because someone touched your lives. That is what we do as teachers and why we are in the profession. Yes we have to get through some content and there are exams at the end, but your job is to connect with people.
As a teacher, the most beneficial communication tool is to listen. You have to actively listen to your students if you want to know what makes them tick and what their cries for help are, but because you are so busy, it has to be an active listening if you want to really know your kids.
Try to understand the generation gap, because more experienced teachers next year will not understand you. You have a huge amount to give to them, but they will need the time and space and understanding that they have been there.
The children in your class will not remember what you said, but how you made them feel. You’re here because of a teacher who made a difference, and you probably can’t remember a single thing they taught you, but you remember how they made you feel.
Questions from the floor
A vibrant discussion followed, based on questions from the floor. Here are three examples of the questions that the student teachers asked:
- With technology playing such an important role especially with the younger generation, cyberbullying is a huge issue. Have you seen it happen within the schools, or trickling into schools with kids being bullied in schools because cyberbullying that happened outside of school? And how do the teachers or the principal or structures in the school handle that?
- When kids feel that they don’t want to be in school, what can teachers do to change that?
- Most of us (students) are really young, and most teachers in schools are old – how do we bridge that generational gap?
My own observations as the lecturer
As the lecturer, I felt that the session certainly fulfilled its purpose. We crossed the bridge between university learning and school experience, as students were taken in meaningful ways into the lifeworld of these teachers. In an environment where teachers are often blamed for poor academic results or social ills, each one of these teachers modelled resilience and agency, thus building a positive picture of teachers as agents of change, even under trying circumstances. The presentations showed the wide spectrum of what it means to be a teacher: knowledge of one’s subject was emphasised, but there was also full recognition of the emotional lives of teachers as well as of their young learners. For the teachers too, this was a cathartic experience, as they gave expression to their own hopes and actions and were listened to by others. And finally, it was an opportunity to cross social barriers, as teachers from different socioeconomic circumstances could hear and respect one another’s unique and common circumstances. We will definitely do this again next year.
I would like to thank the following principals and deputy principals for sharing their insights: Ms Wendy Horn, Dr Ben Aucamp, Ms Victoria Hani, Mr Jeff King, Mr Gary Skeeles and Mr Deon Wertheim. Thanks also to Bernard Rhodes and Cailee Pistorius for technical support.